World Music week at UBC

by Dr. Norman Stanfield ~ April 6th, 2013. Filed under: Performance, World Music Studies.

Last week Professor Hesselink of the Ethnomusicology Department announced an exciting program for a World Music Week. It will feature four dynamic groups representing traditional China, Bali, Korea, and sub-Sahara Africa.

The week of special performances is a chance for the hard-working ensemble members to display their passionate commitment, wrested from their precious time normally spent on the usual demands of a typical university year. It’s also a great opportunity for the rest of the music student body and the university in general to see the excellent work being done on behalf of the Canadian multicultural landscape.

My position as a sessional instructor does not allow me to create and maintain a World Music ensemble for credit. But if it did, what would I chose to do?

Morris and Mummers

In a previous post, I nominated two candidates – a fife and drum corps, and a Canadian fiddle ensemble. Now I’d like to recommend another ensemble, also worth 2 credits and a world of exciting experiences to bring life to theory.

I would mount an ensemble devoted to morris dances and mummers plays. Their repertoire would come from deepest, darkest…England! Working class England, to be specific, both rural and urban. The group would be comprised of beginner dancers, which is the same mandate as the other ensembles.  Like all the other World Music ensembles, the membership would be open to non-music students. Given that UBC has an enormous dance community with many clubs and special interest groups, I should imagine that the interest among those dancers would be massive, even if their immediate interests are in salsa, or a host of other genres. Dancers know only too well that when you gotta dance, you gotta dance.

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The dancers would be accompanied by musos – one or more musicians who would be drawn from the violin community on condition that they convert their pristine technique to rough-and-ready, off-the-shoulder  fiddling. More than one fiddle, including beginners, would be an asset.  Penny Whistlers and tambourinists might be added to the mix. If an accordionist should come along, they will be treated like kings and/or queens. And perhaps the truly adventurous students would like to try their hand at pipe-and-tabor, taught by me.

Although it is tempting to invoke “come one, come all” to all music instrument players, from trombone to oboe, but I am leery of this catholic approach. Morris teams in England are famous for their motley morris musos, are comprised of tenor saxophones, sousaphones, guitars, and other assorted mis-matches but the motivations of the English teams to form such ensembles is rather different from mine. English morris teams and their musicians know the custom from the inside out, and are playing with it (I hope!); the UBC ensemble needs to become acquainted with the real thing, before they become “ironic”. Such irony is at the heart of the internet videos that feature morris dance hybrids, reminiscent of Monty Python.

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The repertoire of dances would be drawn from the four major traditions and most important, each custom would be tied to its customary season. Naturally, appropriate costume would be rough-and-ready with a wide margin for self-expression. Finally, and most unusually, the ensemble would be open to all ethnicities and sexual orientation. The only requirement would be the physical ability (and passion) to dance vigorously. Musicians would be required to memorize their music, and everybody would have to be comfortable with being completely mobile, travelling all over the campus (and outside of campus) by foot. The ensemble would never, never perform in a recital hall to a sit-down audience (unless required to, by some sort of higher authority).

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Learning Objectives

The university administration (and I suppose the students) need to be assured that they are having a learning experience, and not just a whole lot of fun. We know that the African, Balinese, Chinese and Korean ensembles promise new adventures in rhythm and metre, some of it expressed in dancing. The Chinese ensemble also provides an opportunity to gain an appreciation of the traditional music of the world’s current economic power-house and its massive diasporan communities, here in the Lower Mainland and elsewhere.

All four groups are also exercises in cooperative behaviour from cultures with agendas quite different from Western Art Music.  The most obvious difference is the seeming lack of conductor, although directors of all the ensembles are present to keep the ensembles together. But they are inside the group, as lead players, reminiscent of many Early Music ensembles and a few rare and wonderful chamber choirs.

What would a morris and mummers team get out of the experience? Where do I begin? In no particular order…

The members of the ensembles would discover first-hand the original yearly seasonal customs common to Western culture (mainly from England), and practiced at home and around the world in profound (some say monstrous) transformations. Christmas and Easter, to name the two biggest high days, will take on new and revitalized meaning, stripped of their materialist cores.

Secondly the students would experience the essence of performance. The team would play ”on the street”, where  the audience is happenstance. The morris or mummers would put out a “hat” (which would largely be symbolic) for the audience to vote with their spare change. Or their feet, walking away from the performance with disinterest. Each “presentation” is 20 to 30 minutes, and then repeated over and over again, until it’s time to go home.

Perhaps most important of all, the members of the ensemble would discover how central dance is to an appreciation of music, high or low. They would learn how right Friedrich Nietzsche was, when he said that “we should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once.”


Steve Roud (2006) The English Year: A Month-to-Month Guide to the Nation’s Customs and Festivals from May Day to Mischief Night

Keith Chandler (1993) Ribbons, Bells and Squeaking Fiddles” The Social History of Morris Dancing in the English South Midlands, 1660-1900

Georgina Boyes (2010) The Imagined Village: Culture, Ideology and the English Folk Revival (revised illustrated edition)

Paul Spencer (1985) Society and the Dance: the Social Anthropology of Process and Performance

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